‘The golden thread’: Lessons from the classics for a world in crisis | Culture


The Greek historian Polybius (220 BC – 118 BC) described the decline of democracy in Athens using as a metaphor a ship in which each one was doing his own thing, and the sailors were unable to agree in a common minimum: “Some intend to continue the journey, while others pressure the captain to drop anchor, they drop sails and those prevent it. Not only is an embarrassing spectacle produced, but this situation becomes a danger to the rest of the passengers. Often, after escaping from the fiercest storms, they are shipwrecked in port ”. The echoes of this quote in the present are disturbing, because it seems to describe the irreconcilable division in various Western democracies. It is included in The golden thread (Ariel), the scholarly and surprising book by Hellenist David Hernández de la Fuente that in its nine chapters presents many of the lessons that classical authors can offer to help you read the present.

Hellenist David Hernández de la Fuente, last week in the Retiro park in Madrid.
Hellenist David Hernández de la Fuente, last week in the Retiro park in Madrid.Luis Sevillano

The work of this writer and professor of Classical Philology at the Complutense University is one of the many that have reached the novelties tables of bookstores after the success of Infinity in a reed (Siruela), by Irene Vallejo. The essay on the history of books, which accumulates editions, translations and awards, is both the cause and the consequence of this boom. Its success has undoubtedly caused a knock-on effect, but it is at the same time a symptom of interest in the ancient world which, as Hernández de la Fuente, 47, emphasizes, is also reflected in the number of magazines on history topics. or even in superhero movies. Paradoxically, Latin and Greek have less and less presence in teaching.

The book affects a paradox: the classics are very current. There is an old quote that says that Homer is young every morning and that there is nothing as old as the newspaper of the day

“The classical world is nobody’s heritage,” he points out on a terrace in Madrid’s Retiro Park, where Hernández de la Fuente goes with the same bicycle with which he goes to university. “The association between conservative thinking and Latin and Greek has hurt us a lot. It has also been associated with an imperialist idea, of Western and European superiority. And it is not like that. There are many essayists who have broken that scheme and the classics are being studied from many points of view. The book affects the paradox that the classics are very current. There is an old quote that says that Homer is young every morning and that there is nothing as old as the newspaper of the day before.

The Parthenon and the rest of the Acropolis, on May 1.
The Parthenon and the rest of the Acropolis, on May 1.NurPhoto / NurPhoto via Getty Images

“I do not think that history is circular, but we can see patterns of behavior, parallels that are repeated in the two great participatory societies of the ancient world, I do not mean democratic because they are very different: Athens and Rome”, continues the author of essays What Oracles, Lives of Pythagoras Y Classical mythology and contributor to the supplement Babelia. These are some of the lessons from the classics that appear in The golden thread. The most important of all is that you don’t have to idealize them.

Learn from your mistakes

“The classics are our model: idealized, sometimes falsified, or perverted, but since we have built our States and societies on them, it is convenient to see in what they were not so fortunate. When you read Thucydides, who is the great teacher of contemporary political scientists, Sallust or Cicero, you see, for example, the mistakes of the Roman Republic when it comes to not including disgruntled groups or Athenian democracy when it comes to trusting power to certain factions, with corruption and demagogues. They are very current affairs. We must not forget those historical errors that propitiate regime change. We must be aware that Rome fell, Greece fell, Troy in myth as well, and Constantinople. We are not guaranteed not to fall, not only because of a pandemic, which is a topic that interests me as well in the current affairs of the classics, but because democracy is over, as happened in Rome, when a populist and absolutist leadership ended up destroying it. “

Understand the other

“The classics represent a school of values ​​and humanity. Homer teaches us humanity, respect for the other. That is the great lesson of the Greek classics: Herodotus admires the Persians, the Scythians, even if they speak other languages, and Homer admires the Trojans. There is no clash of civilizations. National borders come after the fall of the classical world. The true homeland of the classics is language and culture. The citizen, the human being, must always be trained. It is an ideal, you never stop learning, the elderly also have to train. The idea is that, to improve as a community, we have to improve as individuals and that means keep learning. Another idea that marks the classical heritage is the need to transcend ethnic, religious and national borders. In the Hellenic world, after Alejando, the best writers are not Greeks, they are Syrians, they are Phoenicians, they are Egyptians. Language, culture and education are the true homeland, another indisputable value that the Greeks bring us ”.

Sculpture in relief of the Parthenon that shows pilgrims in the religious festivals of Panateneas.
Relief sculpture of the Parthenon that shows pilgrims in the religious festivals of Panateneas.Lebrecht 3 / Getty Images

A time of heroes

“There are authors who argue that we do not have a living mythology in society and that part of our problems come from there. I don’t think so, I think we have a mythology: superheroes, Star Wars, which opens the same year that David Bowie sings his song Heroes. It represents the return of the hero, greatly influenced by the theories of Joseph Campbell. Why do we watch superhero movies? Because they represent the cycle of life: the call, the reluctance, the crossing of the threshold. We all have to discover our mission, to triumph over ourselves. The Greeks and the ancients were very aware of all this and that is why they were freer when it came to understanding many drives and many modes of behavior that we have only understood since Nietzsche and Freud thanks to psychology. But they didn’t need any clarification. They used those archetypes of the hero, which deep down we are. There are many heroes who are very complex, sometimes traitors and quite negative. Ulysses, for example, is a liar ”.

Back to the sophists

“It saddens me very much to see our parliament, the decline of good parliamentary rhetoric and also the ability to agree. Sophists and rhetoric have a bad name. When you accuse someone of being rhetorical it is usually negative. And let’s not say the sophists. But his goal was very important: to reach a middle ground between irreconcilable positions. For that, rhetoric is fundamental and the defense of moderation ”.


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